Singing in Russian: Overcoming Challenges of Singing in a Foreign Language

Ghenady Meirson
Submitted: Sat, December 22, 2012 - 9:05am EST
Tchaikovsky "Eugene Onegin" - Russian Opera Workshop 2011

Most opera singers spend majority of time singing in Italian, French and German. They work with diction coaches, vocal coaches and take formal language classes.

Russian is in its own category. With less exposure to the language, for classical singers barriers are substantial when factoring in the Cyrillic alphabet and limited common words with other languages. Making sense of gibberish word shells and filling them with meaning and expression is quite a task.

Because Russian operas are in greater demand around the world, increasingly more and more classical singers study Russian vocal repertoire.

The best direction is always to learn the Russian alphabet, accumulate vocabulary and achieve reading fluency.

The next best thing is to work with transliterations either in IPA (international phonetic alphabet) or other transcriptions into English letters. Differences in transliterations are huge and this is when an expert coach is invaluable.

Currently, I am in a middle of production of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" with AVA Artists at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. The show is going up on January 15, 2013. The vocalists are working with my own transliterations and word-for-word translations.

Early in the process, I introduce an exercise where singers isolate a phrase in Russian, then come up with precise translation to each word and alternate singing the phrase in Russian and in English. Here is a very simple example:

Ya lyublyu vas
I love you

In this exercise, rhythmic alterations are acceptable in order to fit the English translation to the music. This is the fastest way to acquire connection with meaning, feeling and expression at any given point within the musical phrase.

As the artists left for winter break, this exercise is my only parting advice. Come January, it's show time.